Welcome back to part two of this mini-series! Yesterday we analyzed the rebuilds of the Colorado Avalanche and Flordia Panthers, and now it’s time to see how the Canucks can copy their approach. If you haven’t yet read the first installment and wish to do so, click here.
Let’s start with some trades.
Trade Bo Horvat
This will be the biggest gut punch for fans, but it’s something that absolutely needs to happen.
The Canucks had a unique opportunity last year when J.T. Miller could have been dealt, but they mishandled that situation by re-signing him. That same mistake can’t happen again, and with the way Horvat has been scoring, the team will be able to get a huge package in return.
If done properly, a Horvat trade can be Vancouver’s version of the Matt Duchene deal that was crucial to Colorado’s rebuild, although no one should expect a top 5 pick in return. Even so, Horvat should be able to net the Canucks multiple high draft picks or promising young players in return, and he’s the only realistic trade chip on the team that can garner such a return.
The alternative option of re-signing him would be inexcusable — just look at how people are viewing the Miller contract already. Horvat won’t get the same level of scrutiny if he is brought back due to their difference in style and personality, but make no mistake: an eight-year deal that pays Horvat $8 million or more, which is what he’ll command at this rate, could age just as poorly as Miller’s contract.
Re-signing Horvat would also keep the Canucks on their current treadmill of mediocrity and add another onerous contract to their cap sheet. For instance, it’s unlikely that Colorado would be the current champs if they never dealt Duchene (and no, the What If? series won’t be brought back even though it garnered extremely positive reviews).
The Canucks already passed up one golden opportunity to get future assets by not trading Miller last year, and they can’t make the same mistake again. It’ll be irrational to critique Miller’s contract and want Horvat brought back on a similarly questionable deal.
You can’t have your cake and eat it too.
Trade Miller and at least another winger
Welcome to the Canucks experience, where trade chatter continues to follow players even after they’ve been re-signed to a long-term extension.
In a vacuum, Miller’s contract has decent value and he probably could’ve commanded more on the open market. However, his deal only makes sense on a team that will be contending in the next few years (like Gabriel Landeskog’s contract with Colorado) since the back end of the contract will probably age poorly.
However, the biggest problem with Miller’s deal currently isn’t its length or value, but rather the structure. He has a full no-movement clause that kicks in next year, so it’s absolutely paramount for the Canucks to trade him before then. If that doesn’t happen, the team could be stuck with two deals (along with OEL’s) that have negative value long-term, making it even harder to construct a contender.
At this point, Miller won’t garner the same return he could’ve last year, but he still has positive value. That might only result in some mid-round picks, but the actual value in a potential deal would be the cap space that’ll be gained. Not only will the Canucks have more flexibility, but they’ll also replenish draft capital that can be used elsewhere.
Other than Miller, the Canucks have a glut of other wingers who should also be on the block such as Brock Boeser, Ilya Mikheyev, and Conor Garland. All three are signed to deals that likely have neutral value and any return will seem underwhelming considering the market for wingers is at an all-time low.
Like Miller, the value in these trades isn’t just the tangible return, but rather the cap space that will be created. With that in mind, Boeser will likely be the hardest to move since he’s being paid the most, so one (or better, both) of Mikheyev or Garland should be dealt instead.
The omission of Andrei Kuzmenko likely stands out, and there’s a reason he isn’t included here. Yes, he’s the only UFA here, but Kuzmenko’s limited NHL experience presents a unique opportunity for the Canucks. At 26, it’s unlikely he’ll improve substantially, but his production could increase in future seasons simply from getting more comfortable playing in North America.
If Kuzmenko’s ask isn’t outrageous, the Canucks should heavily consider rolling the dice and sign him to a deal with some term attached, which could become a home-run deal if his production increases. Even if Kuzmenko plateaus, the team’s cap sheet shouldn’t take too much of a hit — assuming Miller and other wingers are dealt.
Sign cheap, high-upside players
If the Canucks manage to create some cap space, the best way of putting that to use is by signing cheap players with high upside. Florida mastered this approach by adding both Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair in 2020 for a combined AAV of $2.7 million in 2020, and they proceeded to score 68 points in 86 games that season.
Obviously, not every one of those players will hit, but the point of opening up space is to have the ability to take as many shots as possible. Numerous players with high-upside hit the market every off-season who can be signed for cheap, and we highlighted a few names last summer.
Looking back at that list, both Micheal Bunting and Frederick Gaudreau have turned into key middle-six contributors who are currently signed to a combined AAV of $2.195 million. Either of those guys could replace 80% of Boeser, Mikheyev, or Garland’s production at a fraction of the cost, and they could be buried in the minors if it doesn’t pan out.
Having a cheap player produce meaningfully is the NHL’s version of found money, and the Canucks need to take full advantage of it.
Keep OEL… for now
Another lesson the Canucks can learn from Florida is that it’s possible to contend with an onerous contract on the team. The Panthers have become a powerhouse even with Sergei Bobrovsky’s $10 million anchor weighing them down, so the Canucks can afford to stay patient with OEL too.
With that said, this strategy only works if the team has one bad contract and not multiple. This is why it’s imperative that both Horvat and Miller are dealt, since keeping them could stop this team from contending down the line.
Keeping OEL also means that the Canucks can keep all their assets instead of attaching sweeteners in a trade. As currently constructed, this team needs to be restocking its cupboards instead of giving value away, and they should only consider trading him when they’re actually in a position to contend.
And hey, OEL still has value to the Canucks. There surely isn’t a better tank commander in the league than him right now.
Gauge the market on Demko
Pettersson, Hughes, and Demko have long been considered untouchables by the Canucks.
It’s time for that to change.
The whole point of modelling a rebuild after the Avs and Panthers is to keep the Canucks’ best young players and contend in 4-5 years, which is roughly how long it took those teams to become relevant.
Unfortunately, that’s also when Demko’s current contract will end.
Sure, the Canucks can always re-sign him then, but as the Avs have shown, it’s not necessary to have a Vezina-level goalie to win. By then, Demko will also likely be looking for a hefty raise, and recent history has shown that it’s never good to have goalies take up a large portion of cap space (just ask Florida).
In fact, Tampa Bay is the only club that’s been able to win with a goalie on a substantial contract, and as good as Demko is, no one would mistake him for Andrei Vasilevsky.
We’re not advocating for Demko to be dealt tomorrow, but the Canucks should at least take calls. Any offer would likely be lowball with the way he’s currently playing, but engaging with teams early could increase the likelihood of a better deal in the future once Demko has rehabbed his value.
It’s also worth noting that Demko will turn 27 next month and will be in his 30s when his contract ends. That’s why the Canucks should only focus on building around the timelines of Pettersson and Hughes, as they’re the only players of significance who will still be in their primes if this team does become relevant in the next half-decade.
The Panthers managed to turn it around while keeping Barkov and Ekblad, and the Avs did the same with MacKinnon and Landeskog.
If done properly, the Canucks can do the same with Pettersson and Hughes.